September 22, 2008

Twice Is Nice

Zinger proves a captain Cuppers can bank on

The U.S. government has been rescuing a number of failing institutions, but American golf needn't be considered a candidate anymore. Paul Azinger's Ryder Cup team expunged a backlog of psychic debts by whipping Europe Sunday, and in doing so, shattered a few myths regarding who cares more about this unique event. The Red, White and Boo squad can't go asking the Treasury Department for passion pills or the Fed for heart transplants. Not now, not after this effort. And, based on youthful exuberance, U.S. futures are up in mixed company, too. It was taut, yet convincing. Jim Furyk, a veteran of too many celebratory Olés, clinched victory on the 17th at Valhalla CC, a spectacular stage where drama from the hills can roll toward a crescendo, if necessary. But there were four matches still out on that theatrical back nine, so 16½-11½ reads more like bookkeeping than the actual story line. After a burlesque of burning edges for a decade, the Americans buried 10-footers where even the fiery Kentucky sun didn't shine.

Azinger could have directed the motivation better only if he'd hired Kenny Perry as producer, but the homeboy had his hands full. Risking ridicule, Perry went to Milwaukee instead of the British Open not to pad his bankroll or because of the cheese. He wanted points. His native sidekick, J.B. Holmes, excelled. Hunter Mahan, another wildcard selection, was only brilliant. If Azinger had trepidation about picking Mahan after his ill-advised recitation of Ryder Cup complaints, Mahan cleared himself with a forthright mea culpa, removing foot from mouth in public. Anthony Kim? He's got the rap of having a chip on both of his shoulders. But if he's so brash, so cocky, so untamed, why does everybody want him as a partner? There are Ryder Cup rookies, and then there are Ryder Cup rookies. And he's just a kid, like Holmes and Mahan, generation next.

Critics from across the Atlantic will jab that America finally found a captain to harness Europe. Nick Faldo. But that would cheat Azinger, who embraced the job by supplying a ready answer for a riddle posed to coaches and managers everywhere: Must you win to have fun or must you first have fun to win? Ten minutes after landing in Louisville, the Americans mirrored Azinger and his attitude about competitive zeal melding with total engagement. He scoffed at opinions about how his team appeared tight and was poorly conceived. During practice rounds Americans provided autographs as if that was their sole objective. Also, Azinger distributed hundreds of Ryder Cup pins for players to toss into crowds—a smart alternative to stopping and signing.

‘ Americans mirrored Azinger and his attitude about competitive zeal melding with total engagement.'

Thus, nobody felt jilted, including fans at a downtown pep rally Thursday. Azinger told his team to stay home and relax. Not surprisingly, Kim decided to attend, even if he were the lone ranger. When Azinger went downstairs at the hotel, all 12 of his golfers were waiting. No stranger to sarcasm, he thanked them for obeying instructions and off they went to the masses. The Yanks have been known to bark about Cup functions, but this edition voluntarily added one. Thus, during Sunday evening's festive bash, Azinger was implored to stick around. "TWO MORE YEARS! TWO MORE YEARS!"

Azinger worked galleries throughout, not that Europeans were scarce. There were matadors, leprechauns, Faldo masks, a lifesize Colin Montgomerie cutout (complete with kilt) and serenades for their heroes such as "You'll Never Walk Alone." Home fans countered loudly, or with a placard requiring no translation: "SOCCER SUCKS!" Part of Louisville lacked power after a windstorm, but energy wasn't a problem at Valhalla. There was a tense moment Friday, when players from both teams converged on the last four-ball. Boo Weekley, paired with Holmes, annoyed Lee Westwood earlier by exhorting fans that didn't need exhorting. Now U.S. team members, with a lead, were giddy, waving flags. Across the 16th fairway, Euro players observed in steamy silence. "There's nothing we can do," said one, "but this could get ugly."

Obviously, Europe prefers American golfers in customary Ryder Cup mode—brows creased, lower lips extended. But the visitors who instantly chloroformed the crowd in '04 outside Detroit—that's one thing they could have done—never quite meshed. No Monty, no Darren Clarke, no Luke Donald and an atypical Sergio Garcia equaled less swagger. Westwood criticized crowd etiquette upon conclusion of the matches, but absolved Boo, who apologized while retaining his bond with customers. Flushed by the experience, Boo was asked whether he would like to play again. The answer was obvious, except he has this thing about retiring when he reaches a magic number in net worth. It used to be $8 million, but with the aforementioned Wall Street turmoil, even Boo frets about where to stash cash. "One thing I got back home," he concluded, "is some real nice big pickle jars."